The morning after the final round of France’s regional elections, the two most likely contenders for the Élysée in next year’s presidential elections were left licking their wounds. Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) had the worst night, failing to win any of five regions it had targeted – some of them with high hopes of victory. President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche, also failed to win anywhere and remains a phantasmagorical presence in the country at large. For a grassroots movement set up five years ago to renew politics, polling at around 7% is not a good look. The big winner of the night was the centre-right Republican, Xavier Bertrand, whose presidential ambitions have been considerably boosted by an impressive victory in the northern region of Hauts-de-France. A Macron-Le Pen run off next spring is not the foregone conclusion it once seemed.
Perhaps the most eye-catching statistic of all, however, was the turnout figure. The overwhelming, runaway winner of these polls was the unofficial stay-at-home party. Less than 35% of those eligible to vote opted to do so – a record low and only a fraction above last week’s first-round vote (also a record). Among 18- to 24-year-olds, close to 90% may have ignored the elections, while a huge majority of under-35s also found something better to do.
It would be wrong to draw hasty conclusions from this dramatic level of abstention. Regional elections are unloved by French voters and the powers they confer poorly understood. The ongoing Covid crisis may have deterred some from visiting polling booths. A desire for political stability until the pandemic is over may also have led many to write these polls off as ill-timed.
Nevertheless, these are not figures that suggest a democracy in rude health. Turnout in parliamentary elections has also been in steep decline for 20 years, prompting fears of an Americanisation of French politics, with too much focus on the quinquennial battle for the presidency. The most noteworthy grassroots political force of recent years was the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, which angrily bypassed traditional party politics. Its sometimes violent protests – catalysed by a fuel tax rise – quickly morphed into a provincial insurgency that took the entire French political class by surprise. In response, Mr Macron launched a “great debate” comprising 10,000 local meetings and a series of citizens’ assemblies. The political energy put into that process was formidable, but little work was done to ensure concrete policy outcomes. Having entered the Élysée promising democratic renewal and decentralisation, the president has largely left France’s highly centralised top-down system of governance intact. He has repeatedly been accused of adopting an overly monarchical style.
The silver lining of an alarmingly hollow democratic exercise was the mass desertion of Ms Le Pen’s party by her traditional supporters. More than 70% of RN voters in the presidential election of 2017 stayed away, some of them no doubt disillusioned by the party’s attempt to court moderate centre-right voters. Fewer voters for Ms Le Pen is always good news. But a healthy polity requires more than one high-profile head-to-head contest every five years. French democracy was a major loser on Sunday.